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Socrates and Enterprise Agility

Back in my debate days, I was introduced to The Socratic Method, which is a line of reasoning popularized by Socrates in which seemingly “fundamental” concepts that appear to defy definition were explored to either bring clarity or to reveal one or more false assumptions. Far too often I find in the business community that we toss around jargon without digging any deeper to unpack terms and concepts that are regarded as ‘fundamental’ or ‘self-defining’. One such concept that I think warrants some attention is the term ‘agile’. If Socrates were a business consultant today, he might well ask: What does it mean for an enterprise to be agile?

Dispelling Myths about Agility

To start with, I’d like to address some common misconceptions associated with agility.

  1. Agility does not mean you simply work faster.
  2. Cutting out entire categories of work isn’t agile. (You still need to conduct analysis, design, and testing, you just do it differently.)
  3. Agility is not purely the domain of startups, even massive enterprises can be nimble and responsive.
  4. If your development team is the only thing you have transformed, then you are only halfway there. Your entire value chain must become agile, from strategy all the way through operations (this is where ‘DevOps‘ comes into play).
  5. Brick and mortar businesses can benefit as much or even more from agile practices and innovative uses of emerging methods and automation technologies.

Crystalizing the Goal – Competitiveness

Having rejected several common and flawed understandings of agility, we are left with a clean slate to build upon. As with any analysis, we should “begin with the end in mind” and set our sights on the purpose of agility in an enterprise context. In their paper on “Dynamic Organizations”, Lee Dyer and Jeff Ericksen describe the importance that agility and responsiveness play in maintaining a competitive edge:

Dynamic organizations (DOs) operate in business environments characterized by frequent and discontinuous change. For them, competitiveness is a moving target, a constant pursuit of proactivity and adaptability in the marketplace, preferably undertaken as a matter of course rather than with great travail.

We have to stop being surprised by change. We have to stop getting bent out of shape when leadership changes priorities, the marketplace changes directions, or our customer base changes their needs. Change is a given. Successful enterprises embrace a dynamic and responsive approach to their business, complete with the requisite process, people, and technology to operate in such an environment.

The Elements of Agility

To be a dynamic, agile organization, you have to be willing to try things out that may not work. Be prepared to fail early, fail often, learn quickly from your mistakes and respond when new information presents itself. Remarkable athletes are credited with attempting more shots than most players successfully make. They also are sometimes derided for significant miss percentages. The moral of the story is to persevere rather than try and line everything up for that ‘perfect shot’. Dyer and Ericksen (referenced earlier) outline four elements of dynamic / agile organizations:

  • Explore – innovate, try new things, take risks, constantly improve
  • Exploit – find something that works and run with it
  • Adapt – change directions as new information arises, even returning to the ‘explore’ phase if necessary
  • Exit – failure helps you identify what won’t work, do it quickly and as often as possible, then repeat the cycle to find something that does work

Cycle of Agile Innovation

What are you doing within your organization to embrace a dynamic, agile approach to operation? If the answer is ‘not much’, then you are at the mercy of any competitor that chooses to embrace a lean and adaptive model of operations. Unless your business, like Socrates, want to be regarded as a historical relic. Agility is key to competitiveness and to relevance.

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Kyle Gabhart is a subject matter expert specializing in strategic planning and tactical delivery of enterprise technology solutions, blending EA, BPM, SOA, Cloud Computing, and other emerging technologies. Kyle currently serves as a director for Web Age Solutions, a premier provider of technology education and mentoring. Since 2001 he has contributed extensively to the IT community as an author, speaker, consultant, and open source contributor.